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This is the Ostrom Memorial Lecture I gave on 9 October of last year for the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University. Here is the video. (The intro starts at 8 minutes in, and my part starts just after 11 minutes in.) I usually speak off the cuff, but this time I wrote it out, originally in outline form*, which is germane to my current collaborations with Dave Winer, father of outlining software (and, in related ways, of blogging and podcasting). So here ya go.

Intro

The movie Blade Runner was released in 1982; and was set in a future Los Angeles. Anyone here know when in the future Blade Runner is set? I mean, exactly?

The year was 2019. More precisely, next month: November.

In Blade Runner’s 2019, Los Angeles is a dark and rainy hellscape with buildings the size of mountains, flying cars, and human replicants working on off-world colonies. It also has pay phones and low-def computer screens that are vacuum tubes.

Missing is a communication system that can put everyone in the world at zero distance from everyone else, in disembodied form, at almost no cost—a system that lives on little slabs in people’s pockets and purses, and on laptop computers far more powerful than any computer, of any size, from 1982.

In other words, this communication system—the Internet—was less thinkable in 1982 than flying cars, replicants and off-world colonies. Rewind the world to 1982, and the future Internet would appear a miracle dwarfing the likes of loaves and fish.

In economic terms, the Internet is a common pool resource; but non-rivalrous and non-excludable to such an extreme that to call it a pool or a resource is to insult what makes it common: that it is the simplest possible way for anyone and anything in the world to be present with anyone and anything else in the world, at costs that can round to zero.

As a commons, the Internet encircles every person, every institution, every business, every university, every government, every thing you can name. It is no less exhaustible than presence itself. By nature and design, it can’t be tragic, any more than the Universe can be tragic.

There is also only one of it. As with the universe, it has no other examples.

As a source of abundance, the closest thing to an example the Internet might have is the periodic table. And the Internet might be even more elemental than that: so elemental that it is easy to overlook the simple fact that it is the largest goose ever to lay golden eggs.

It can, however, be misunderstood, and that’s why it’s in trouble.

The trouble it’s in is with human nature: the one that sees more value in the goose’s eggs than in the goose itself.

See, the Internet is designed to support every possible use, every possible institution, and—alas—every possible restriction, which is why enclosure is possible. People, institutions and possibilities of all kinds can be trapped inside enclosures on the Internet. I’ll describe nine of them.

Enclosures

The first enclosure is service provisioning, for example with asymmetric connection speeds. On cable connections you may have up to 400 megabits per second downstream, but still only 10 megabits per second—one fortieth of that—upstream. (By the way this is exactly what Spectrum, formerly Time Warner Cable, provides with its most expensive home service to customers in New York City.)

They do that to maximize consumption while minimizing production by those customers. You can consume all the video you want, and think you’re getting great service. But meanwhile this asymmetrical provisioning prevents production at your end. Want to put out a broadcast or a podcast from your house, to run your own email server, or to store your own video or other personal data in your own personal “cloud”? Forget it.

The Internet was designed to support infinite production by anybody of anything. But cable TV companies don’t want you to have that that power. So you don’t. The home Internet you get from your cable company is nice to have, but it’s not the whole Internet. It’s an enclosed subset of capabilities biased by and for the cable company and large upstream producers of “content.”

So, it’s golden eggs for them, but none for you. Also missing are all the golden eggs you might make possible for those companies as an active producer rather than as a passive consumer.

The second enclosure is through 5G wireless service, currently promoted by phone companies as a new generation of Internet service. The companies deploying 5G promise greater speeds and lower lag times over wireless connections; but is also clear that they want to build in as many choke points as they like, all so you can be billed for as many uses as possible.

You want gaming? Here’s our gaming package. You want cloud storage? Here’s our cloud storage package. Each of these uses will carry terms and conditions that allow some uses and prevent others. Again, this is a phone company enclosure. No cable companies are deploying 5G. They’re fine with their own enclosure.

The third enclosure is government censorship. The most familiar example is China’s. In China’s closed Internet you will find no Google, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or Reddit. No Pandora, Spotify, Slack or Dropbox. What you will find is pervasive surveillance of everyone and everything—and ranking of people in its Social Credit System.

By March of this year, China had already punished 23 million people with low social credit scores by banning them from traveling. Control of speech has also spread to U.S. companies such as the NBA and ESPN, which are now censoring themselves as well, bowing to the wishes of the Chinese government and its own captive business partners.

The fourth enclosure is the advertising-supported commercial Internet. This is led by Google and Facebook, but also includes all the websites and services that depend on tracking-based advertising. This form of advertising, known as adtech, has in the last decade become pretty much the only kind of advertising online.

Today there are very few major websites left that don’t participate in what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, and Brett Frischmann and Evan Selinger call, in their book by that title, Re-engineering Humanity. Surveillance of individuals online is now so deep and widespread that nearly every news organization is either unaware of it or afraid to talk about it—in part because the advertising they run is aimed by it.

That’s why you’ll read endless stories about how bad Facebook and Google are, and how awful it is that we’re all being tracked everywhere like marked animals; but almost nothing about how the sites publishing stories about tracking also participate in exactly the same business—and far more surreptitiously. Reporting on their own involvement in the surveillance business is a third rail they won’t grab.

I know of only one magazine that took and shook that third rail, especially in the last year and a half.  That magazine was Linux Journal, where I worked for 24 years and was serving as editor-in-chief when it was killed by its owner in August. At least indirectly that was because we didn’t participate in the surveillance economy.

The fifth enclosure is protectionism. In Europe, for example, your privacy is protected by laws meant to restrict personal data use by companies online. As a result in Europe, you won’t see the Los Angeles Times or the Washington Post in your browsers, because those publishers don’t want to cope with what’s required by the EU’s laws.

While they are partly to blame—because they wish to remain in the reader-tracking business—the laws are themselves terribly flawed—for example by urging every website to put up a “cookie notice” on pages greeting readers. In most cases clicking “accept” to the site’s cookies only gives the site permission to continue doing exactly the kind of tracking the laws are meant to prevent.

So, while the purpose of these laws is to make the Internet safer, in effect they also make its useful space smaller.

The sixth enclosure is what The Guardian calls “digital colonialism.” The biggest example of that is  Facebook.org, originally called “Free Basics” and “Internet.org”

This is a China-like subset of the Internet, offered for free by Facebook in less developed parts of the world. It consists of a fully enclosed Web, only a few dozen sites wide, each hand-picked by Facebook. The rest of the Internet isn’t there.

The seventh enclosure is the forgotten past. Today the World Wide Web, which began as a kind of growing archive—a public set of published goods we could browse as if it were a library—is being lost. Forgotten. That’s because search engines are increasingly biased to index and find pages from the present and recent past, and by following the tracks of monitored browsers. It’s forgetting what’s old. Archival goods are starting to disappear, like snow on the water.

Why? Ask the algorithm.

Of course, you can’t. That brings us to our eighth enclosure: algorithmic opacity.

Consider for a moment how important power plants are, and how carefully governed they are as well. Every solar, wind, nuclear, hydro and fossil fuel power production system in the world is subject to inspection by whole classes of degreed and trained professionals.

There is nothing of the sort for the giant search engine and social networks of the world. Google and Facebook both operate dozens of data centers, each the size of many Walmart stores. Yet the inner workings of those data centers are nearly absent of government oversight.

This owes partly to the speed of change in what these centers do, but more to the simple fact that what they do is unknowable, by design. You can’t look at rows of computers with blinking lights in many acres of racks and have the first idea of what’s going on in there.

I would love to see research, for example, on that last enclosure I listed: on how well search engines continue to index old websites. Or to do anything. The whole business is as opaque as a bowling ball with no holes.

I’m not even sure you can find anyone at Google who can explain exactly why its index does one thing or another, for any one person or another. In fact, I doubt Facebook is capable of explaining why any given individual sees any given ad. They aren’t designed for that. And the algorithm itself isn’t designed to explain itself, perhaps even to the employees responsible for it.

Or so I suppose.

In the interest of moving forward with research on these topics, I invite anyone at Google, Facebook, Bing or Amazon to help researchers at institutions such as the Ostrom Workshop, and to explain exactly what’s going on inside their systems, and to provide testable and verifiable ways to research those goings-on.

The ninth and worst enclosure is the one inside our heads. Because, if we think the Internet is something we use by grace of Apple, Amazon, Facebook, Google and “providers” such as phone and cable companies, we’re only helping all those companies contain the Internet’s usefulness inside their walled gardens.

Not understanding the Internet can result in problems similar to ones we suffer by not understanding common pool resources such as the atmosphere, the oceans, and the Earth itself.

But there is a difference between common pool resources in the natural world, and the uncommon commons we have with the Internet.

See, while we all know that common-pool resources are in fact not limitless—even when they seem that way—we don’t have the same knowledge of the Internet, because its nature as a limitless non-thing is non-obvious.

For example, we know common pool resources in the natural world risk tragic outcomes if our use of them is ungoverned, either by good sense or governance systems with global reach. But we don’t know that the Internet is limitless by design, or that the only thing potentially tragic about it is how we restrict access to it and use of it, by enclosures such as the nine I just listed.

So my thesis here is this: if we can deeply and fully understand what the Internet is, why it is fully important, and why it is in danger of enclosure, we can also understand why, ten years after Lin Ostrom won a Nobel prize for her work on the commons, that work may be exactly what we need to save the Internet as a boundless commons that can support countless others.

The Internet

We’ll begin with what makes the Internet possible: a protocol.

A protocol is a code of etiquette for diplomatic exchanges between computers. A form of handshake.

What the Internet’s protocol does is give all the world’s digital devices and networks a handshake agreement about how to share data between any point A and any point B in the world, across any intermediary networks.

When you send an email, or look at a website, anywhere in the world, the route the shared data takes can run through any number of networks between the two. You might connect from Bloomington to Denver through Chicago, Tokyo and Mexico City. Then, two minutes later, through Toronto and Miami. Some packets within your data flows may also be dropped along the way, but the whole session will flow just fine because the errors get noticed and the data re-sent and re-assembled on the fly.

Oddly, none of this is especially complicated at the technical level, because what I just described is pretty much all the Internet does. It doesn’t concern itself with what’s inside the data traffic it routes, who is at the ends of the connections, or what their purposes are—any more than gravity cares about what it attracts.

Beyond the sunk costs of its physical infrastructure, and the operational costs of keeping the networks themselves standing up, the Internet has no first costs at its protocol level, and it adds no costs along the way. It also has no billing system.

In all these ways the Internet is, literally, neutral. It also doesn’t need regulators or lawmakers to make it neutral. That’s just its nature.

The Internet’s protocol called is called TCP/IP, and by using it, all the networks of the world subordinate their own selfish purposes.

This is what makes the Internet’s protocol generous and supportive to an absolute degree toward every purpose to which it is put. It is a rising tide that lifts all boats.

In retrospect we might say the big networks within the Internet—those run by phone and cable companies, governments and universities—agreed to participate in the Internet because it was so obviously useful that there was no reason not to.

But the rising-tide nature of the Internet was not obvious to all of them at first. In retrospect, they didn’t realize that the Internet was a Trojan Horse, wheeled through their gates by geeks who looked harmless but in fact were bringing the world a technical miracle.

I can support that claim by noting that even though phone and cable companies of the world now make trillions of dollars because of it, they never would have invented it.

Two reasons for that. One is because it was too damn simple. The other is because they would have started with billing. And not just billing you and me. They would have wanted to bill each other, and not use something invented by another company.

A measure of the Internet’s miraculous nature is that actually billing each other would have been so costly and complicated that what they do with each other, to facilitate the movement of data to, from, and across their networks, is called peering. In other words, they charge each other nothing.

Even today it is hard for the world’s phone and cable companies—and even its governments, which have always been partners of a sort—to realize that the Internet became the world-wide way to communicate because it didn’t start with billing.

Again, all TCP/IP says is that this is a way for computers, networks, and everything connected to them, to get along. And it succeeded, producing instant worldwide peace among otherwise competing providers of networks and services. It made every network operator involved win a vast positive-sum game almost none of them knew they were playing. And most of them still don’t.

You know that old joke in which the big fish says to the little fish, “Hi guys, how’s the water?” and one of the little fish says to the other “What’s water?” In 2005, David Foster Wallace gave a legendary commencement address at Kenyon College that I highly recommend, titled “This is water.”

I suspect that, if Wallace were around today, he’d address his point to our digital world.

Human experience

Those of you who already know me are aware that my wife Joyce is as much a companion and collaborator of mine as Vincent Ostrom was of Lin. I bring this up because much of of this talk is hers, including this pair of insights about the Internet: that it has no distance, and also no gravity.

Think about it: when you are on the Internet with another person—for example if you are in a chat or an online conference—there is no functional distance between you and the other person. One of you may be in Chicago and the other in Bangalore. But if the Internet is working, distance is gone. Gravity is also gone. Your face may be right-side-up on the other person’s screen, but it is absent of gravity. The space you both occupy is the other person’s two-dimensional rectangle. Even if we come up with holographic representations of ourselves, we are still incorporeal “on” the Internet. (I say “on” because we need prepositions to make sense of how things are positioned in the world. Yet our limited set of physical-world prepositions—over, under around, through, beside, within and the rest—misdirect our attention away from our disembodied state in the digital one.)

Familiar as that disembodied state may be to all of us by now, it is still new to human experience and inadequately informed by our experience as embodied creatures. It is also hard for us to see both what our limitations are, and how limitless we are at the same time.

Joyce points out that we are also highly adaptive creatures, meaning that eventually we’ll figure out what it means to live where there is no distance or gravity, much as astronauts learn to live as weightless beings in space.

But in the meantime, we’re having a hard time seeing the nature and limits of what’s good and what’s bad in this new environment. And that has to do, at least in part, on forms of enclosure in that world—and how we are exploited within private spaces where we hardly know we are trapped.

In The Medium is the Massage, Marshall McLuhan says every new medium, every new technology, “works us over completely.” Those are his words: works us over completely. Such as now, with digital technology, and the Internet.

I was talking recently with a friend about where our current digital transition ranks among all the other transitions in history that each have a formal cause. Was becoming ditital the biggest thing since the industrial revolution? Since movable type? Writing? Speech?

No, he said. “It’s the biggest thing since oxygenation.”

In case you weren’t there, or weren’t paying attention in geology class, oxygenation happened about 2.5 billion years ago. Which brings us to our next topic:

Institutions

Journalism is just one example of a trusted institution that is highly troubled in the digital world.

It worked fine in a physical world where truth-tellers who dig into topics and reported on them with minimized prejudice were relatively scarce yet easy to find, and to trust. But in a world flooded with information and opinion—a world where everyone can be a reporter, a publisher, a producer, a broadcaster, where the “news cycle” has the lifespan of a joke, and where news and gossip have become almost indistinguishable while being routed algorithmically to amplify prejudice and homophily, journalism has become an anachronism: still important, but all but drowning in a flood of biased “content” paid for by surveillance-led adtech.

People are still hungry for good information, of course, but our appetites are too easily fed by browsing through the surfeit of “content” on the Internet, which we can easily share by text, email or social media. Even if we do the best we can to share trustworthy facts and other substances that sound like truth, we remain suspended in a techno-social environment we mostly generate and re-generate ourselves. Kind of like our ancestral life forms made sense of the seas they oxygenated, long ago.

The academy is another institution that’s troubled in our digital time. After all, education on the Internet is easy to find. Good educational materials are easy to produce and share. For example, take Kahn Academy, which started with one guy tutoring his cousin though online videos.

Authority must still be earned, but there are now countless non-institutional ways to earn it. Credentials still matter, but less than they used to, and not in the same ways. Ad hoc education works in ways that can be cheap or free, while institutions of higher education remain very expensive. What happens when the market for knowledge and know-how starts moving past requirements for advanced degrees that might take students decades of their lives to pay off?

For one example of that risk already at work, take computer programming.

Which do you think matters more to a potential employer of programmers—a degree in computer science or a short but productive track record? For example, by contributing code to the Linux operating system?

To put this in perspective, Linux and operating systems like it are inside nearly every smart thing that connects to the Internet, including TVs, door locks, the world’s search engines, social network, laptops and mobile phones. Nothing could be more essential to computing life.

At the heart of Linux is what’s called the kernel. For code to get into the kernel, it has to pass muster with other programmers who have already proven their worth, and then through testing and debugging. If you’re looking for a terrific programmer, everyone contributing to the Linux kernel is well-proven. And there are thousands of them.

Now here’s the thing. It not only doesn’t matter whether or not those people have degrees in computer science, or even if they’ve had any formal training. What matters, for our purposes here, is that, to a remarkable degree, many of them don’t have either. Or perhaps most of them.

I know a little about this because, in the course of my work at Linux Journal, I would sometimes ask groups of alpha Linux programmers where they learned to code. Almost none told me “school.” Most were self-taught or learned from each other.

My point here is that the degree to which the world’s most essential and consequential operating system depends on the formal education of its makers is roughly zero.

See, the problem for educational institutions in the digital world is that most were built to leverage scarcity: scarce authority, scarce materials, scarce workspace, scarce time, scarce credentials, scarce reputation, scarce anchors of trust. To a highly functional degree we still need and depend on what only educational institutions can provide, but that degree is a lot lower than it used to be, a lot more varied among disciplines, and it risks continuing to decline as time goes on.

It might help at this point to see gravity in some ways as a problem the Internet solves. Because gravity is top-down. It fosters hierarchy and bell curves, sometimes where we need neither.

Absence of gravity instead fosters heterarchy and polycentrism. And, as we know, at the Ostrom Workshop perhaps better than anywhere, commons are good examples of heterarchy and polycentrism at work.

Knowledge Commons

In the first decade of our new millenium, Elinor Ostrom and Charlotte Hess—already operating in our new digital age—extended the commons category to include knowledge, calling it a complex ecosystem that operates as a common: a shared resource subject to social dilemmas.

They looked at ease of access to digital forms of knowledge and easy new ways to store, access and share knowledge as a common. They also looked at the nature of knowledge and its qualities of non-rivalry and non-excludability, which were both unlike what characterizes a natural commons, with its scarcities of rivalrous and excludable goods.

A knowledge commons, they said, is characterized by abundance. This is one way what Yochai Benkler calls Commons Based Peer Production on the Internet is both easy and rampant, giving us, among many other things, both the free software and open source movements in code development and sharing, plus the Internet and the Web.

Commons Based Peer Production also demonstrates how collaboration and non-material incentives can produce better quality products, and less social friction in the course of production.

I’ve given Linux as one example of Commons Based Peer Production. Others are Wikipedia and the Internet Archive. We’re also seeing it within the academy, for example with Indiana University’s own open archives, making research more accessible and scholarship more rich and productive.

Every one of those examples comports with Lin Ostrom’s design principles:

  1. clearly defined group boundaries;
  2. rules governing use of common goods within local needs and conditions;
  3. participation in modifying rules by those affected by the rules;
  4. accessible and low cost ways to resolve disputes;
  5. developing a system, carried out by community members, for monitoring members’ behavior;
  6. graduated sanctions for rule violators;
  7. and governing responsibility in nested tiers from the lowest level up to the entire interconnected system.

But there is also a crisis with Commons Based Peer Production on the Internet today.

Programmers who ten or fifteen years ago would not participate in enclosing their own environments are doing exactly that, for example with 5G, which is designed to put the phone companies in charge of what we can do on the Internet.

The 5G-enclosed Internet might be faster and more handy in many ways, the range of freedoms for each of us there will be bounded by the commercial interests of the phone companies and their partners, and subject to none of Lin’s rules for governing a commons.

Consider this: every one of the nine enclosures I listed at the beginning of this talk are enabled by programmers who either forgot or never learned about the freedom and openness that made the free and open Internet possible. They are employed in the golden egg gathering business—not in one that appreciates the goose that lays those eggs, and which their predecessors gave to us all.

But this isn’t the end of the world. We’re still at the beginning. And a good model for how to begin is—

The physical world

It is significant that all the commons the Ostroms and their colleagues researched in depth were local. Their work established beyond any doubt the importance of local knowledge and local control.

I believe demonstrating this in the digital world is our best chance of saving our digital world from the nine forms of enclosure I listed at the top of this talk.

It’s our best chance because there is no substitute for reality. We may be digital beings now, as well as physical ones. There are great advantages, even in the digital world, to operating in the here-and-now physical world, where all our prepositions still work, and our metaphors still apply.

Back to Joyce again.

In the mid ‘90s, when the Internet was freshly manifest on our home computers, I was mansplaining to Joyce how this Internet thing was finally the global village long promised by tech.

Her response was, “The sweet spot of the Internet is local.” She said that’s because local is where the physical and the virtual intersect. It’s where you can’t fake reality, because you can see and feel and shake hands with it.

She also said the first thing the Internet would obsolesce would be classified ads in newspapers. That’s because the Internet would be a better place than classifieds for parents to find a crib some neighbor down the street might have for sale. Then Craigslist came along and did exactly that.

We had an instructive experience with how the real world and the Internet work together helpfully at the local level about a year and a half ago. That’s when a giant rainstorm fell on the mountains behind Santa Barbara, where we live, and the town next door, called Montecito. This was also right after the Thomas Fire—largest at the time in recorded California history—had burned all the vegetation away, and there was a maximum risk of what geologists call a “debris flow.”

The result was the biggest debris flow in the history of the region: a flash flood of rock and mud that flowed across Montecito like lava from a volcano. Nearly two hundred homes were destroyed, and twenty-three people were killed. Two of them were never found, because it’s hard to find victims buried under what turned out to be at least twenty thousand truckloads of boulders and mud.

Right afterwards, all of Montecito was evacuated, and very little news got out while emergency and rescue workers did their jobs. Our local news media did an excellent job of covering this event as a story. But I also noticed that not much was being said about the geology involved.

So, since I was familiar with debris flows out of the mountains above Los Angeles, where they have infrastructure that’s ready to handle this kind of thing, I put up a post on my blog titled “Making sense of what happened to Montecito.” In that post I shared facts about the geology involved, and also published the only list on the Web of all the addresses of homes that had been destroyed. Visits to my blog jumped from dozens a day to dozens of thousands. Lots of readers also helped improve what I wrote and re-wrote.

All of this happened over the Internet, but it pertained to a real-world local crisis.

Now here’s the thing. What I did there wasn’t writing a story. I didn’t do it for the money, and my blog is a noncommercial one anyway. I did it to help my neighbors. I did it by not being a bystander.

I also did it in the context of a knowledge commons.

Specifically, I was respectful of boundaries of responsibility; notably those of local authorities—rescue workers, law enforcement, reporters from local media, city and county workers preparing reports, and so on. I gave much credit where it was due and didn’t step on the toes of others helping out as well.

An interesting fact about journalism there at the time was the absence of fake news. Sure, there was plenty of fingers pointing in blog comments and in social media. But it was marginalized away from the fact-reporting that mattered most. There was a very productive ecosystem of information, made possible by the Internet in everyone’s midst. And by everyone, I mean lots of very different people.

Humanity

We are learning creatures by nature. We can’t help it. And we don’t learn by freight forwarding

By that, I mean what I am doing here, and what we do with each other when we talk or teach, is not delivering a commodity called information, as if we were forwarding freight. Something much more transformational is taking place, and this is profoundly relevant to the knowledge commons we share.

Consider the word information. It’s a noun derived from the verb to inform, which in turn is derived from the verb to form. When you tell me something I don’t know, you don’t just deliver a sum of information to me. You form me. As a walking sum of all I know, I am changed by that.

This means we are all authors of each other.

In that sense, the word authority belongs to the right we give others to author us: to form us.

Now look at how much more of that can happen on our planet, thanks to the Internet, with its absence of distance and gravity.

And think about how that changes every commons we participate in, as both physical and digital beings. And how much we need guidance to keep from screwing up the commons we have, or forming the ones we don’t, or forming might have in the future—if we don’t screw things up.

A rule in technology is that what can be done will be done—until we find out what shouldn’t be done. Humans have done this with every new technology and practice from speech to stone tools to nuclear power.

We are there now with the Internet. In fact, many of those enclosures I listed are well-intended efforts to limit dangerous uses of the Internet.

And now we are at a point where some of those too are a danger.

What might be the best way to look at the Internet and its uses most sensibly?

I think the answer is governance predicated on the realization that the Internet is perhaps the ultimate commons, and subject to both research and guidance informed by Lin Ostrom’s rules.

And I hope that guides our study.

There is so much to work on: expansion of agency, sensibility around license and copyright, freedom to benefit individuals and society alike, protections that don’t foreclose opportunity, saving journalism, modernizing the academy, creating and sharing wealth without victims, de-financializing our economies… the list is very long. And I look forward to working with many of us here on answers to these and many other questions.

Thank you. 

Sources

Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. Cambridge University Press, 1990

Ostrom, Elinor and Hess, Charlotte, editors. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons:
From Theory to Practice, MIT Press, 2011
https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/understanding-knowledge-commons
Full text online: https://wtf.tw/ref/hess_ostrom_2007.pdf

Paul D. Aligica and Vlad Tarko, “Polycentricity: From Polanyi to Ostrom, and Beyond” https://asp.mercatus.org/system/files/Polycentricity.pdf

Elinor Ostrom, “Coping With Tragedies of the Commons,” 1998 https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7c6e/92906bcf0e590e6541eaa41ad0cd92e13671.pdf

Lee Anne Fennell, “Ostrom’s Law: Property rights in the commons,” March 3, 2011
https://www.thecommonsjournal.org/articles/10.18352/ijc.252/

Christopher W. Savage, “Managing the Ambient Trust Commons: The Economics of Online Consumer Information Privacy.” Stanford Law School, 2019. https://law.stanford.edu/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/Savage_20190129-1.pdf

 

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*I wrote it using—or struggling in—the godawful Outline view in Word. Since I succeeded (most don’t, because they can’t or won’t, with good reason), I’ll brag on succeeding at the subhead level:

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Device information and identifiers such as IP address; browser type and language; operating system; platform type; device type; software and hardware attributes; and unique device, advertising, and app identifiers

Internet network and device activity data such as information about files you download, domain names, landing pages, browsing activity, content or ads viewed and clicked, dates and times of access, pages viewed, forms you complete or partially complete, search terms, uploads or downloads, the URL that referred you to our Services, the web sites you visit after this web site; if you share our content to social media platforms; and other web usage activity and data logged by our web servers, whether you open an email and your interaction with email content, access times, error logs, and other similar information. See “Cookies and Other Tracking Technologies” below for more information about how we collect and use this information.

Geolocation information such as city, state and ZIP code associated with your IP address or derived through Wi-Fi triangulation; and precise geolocation information from GPS-based functionality on your mobile devices, with your permission in accordance with your mobile device settings.

The “How We Use the Information We Collect” section says they will—

Personalize your experience to Provide the Services, for example to:

  • Customize certain features of the Services,
  • Deliver relevant content and to provide you with an enhanced experience based on your activities and interests
  • Send you personalized newsletters, surveys, and information about products, services and promotions offered by us, our partners, and other organizations with which we work
  • Customize the advertising on the Services based on your activities and interests
  • Create and update inferences about you and audience segments that can be used for targeted advertising and marketing on the Services, third party services and platforms, and mobile apps
  • Create profiles about you, including adding and combining information we obtain from third parties, which may be used for analytics, marketing, and advertising
  • Conduct cross-device tracking by using information such as IP addresses and unique mobile device identifiers to identify the same unique users across multiple browsers or devices (such as smartphones or tablets, in order to save your preferences across devices and analyze usage of the Service.
  • using inferences about your preferences and interests for any and all of the above purposes

For a look at what Rolling Stone, PMC and their third parties are up to, Privacy Badger’s browser extension “found 73 potential trackers on www.rollingstone.com:

tagan.adlightning.com
 acdn.adnxs.com
 ib.adnxs.com
 cdn.adsafeprotected.com
 static.adsafeprotected.com
 d.agkn.com
 js.agkn.com
 c.amazon-adsystem.com
 z-na.amazon-adsystem.com
 display.apester.com
 events.apester.com
 static.apester.com
 as-sec.casalemedia.com
 ping.chartbeat.net
 static.chartbeat.com
 quantcast.mgr.consensu.org
 script.crazyegg.com
 dc8xl0ndzn2cb.cloudfront.net
cdn.digitru.st
 ad.doubleclick.net
 securepubads.g.doubleclick.net
 hbint.emxdgt.com
 connect.facebook.net
 adservice.google.com
 pagead2.googlesyndication.com
 www.googletagmanager.com
 www.gstatic.com
 static.hotjar.com
 imasdk.googleapis.com
 js-sec.indexww.com
 load.instinctiveads.com
 ssl.p.jwpcdn.com
 content.jwplatform.com
 ping-meta-prd.jwpltx.com
 prd.jwpltx.com
 assets-jpcust.jwpsrv.com
 g.jwpsrv.com
pixel.keywee.co
 beacon.krxd.net
 cdn.krxd.net
 consumer.krxd.net
 www.lightboxcdn.com
 widgets.outbrain.com
 cdn.permutive.com
 assets.pinterest.com
 openbid.pubmatic.com
 secure.quantserve.com
 cdn.roiq.ranker.com
 eus.rubiconproject.com
 fastlane.rubiconproject.com
 s3.amazonaws.com
 sb.scorecardresearch.com
 p.skimresources.com
 r.skimresources.com
 s.skimresources.com
 t.skimresources.com
launcher.spot.im
recirculation.spot.im
 js.spotx.tv
 search.spotxchange.com
 sync.search.spotxchange.com
 cc.swiftype.com
 s.swiftypecdn.com
 jwplayer.eb.tremorhub.com
 pbs.twimg.com
 cdn.syndication.twimg.com
 platform.twitter.com
 syndication.twitter.com
 mrb.upapi.net
 pixel.wp.com
 stats.wp.com
 www.youtube.com
 s.ytimg.com

This kind of shit is why we have the EU’s GDPR (General Data Protection Regulation) and California’s CCPA (California Consumer Privacy Act). (No, it’s not just because Google and Facebook.) If publishers and the adtech industry (those third parties) hadn’t turned the commercial Web into a target-rich environment for suckage by data vampires, we’d never have had either law. (In fact, both laws are still new: the GDPR went into effect in May 2018 and the CCPA a few days ago.)

I’m in California, where the CCPA gives me the right to shake down the vampiretariat for all the information about me they’re harvesting, sharing, selling or giving away to or through those third parties.* But apparently Rolling Stone and PMC don’t care about that.

Others do, and I’ll visit some of those in later posts. Meanwhile I’ll let Rolling Stone and PMC stand as examples of bad acting by publishers that remains rampant, unstopped and almost entirely unpunished, even under these new laws.

I also suggest following and getting involved with the fight against the plague of data vampirism in the publishing world. These will help:

  1. Reading Don Marti’s blog, where he shares expert analysis and advice on the CCPA and related matters. Also People vs. Adtech, a compilation of my own writings on the topic, going back to 2008.
  2. Following what the browser makers are doing with tracking protection (alas, differently†). Shortcuts: Brave, Google’s Chrome, Ghostery’s Cliqz, Microsoft’s Edge, Epic, Mozilla’s Firefox.
  3. Following or joining communities working to introduce safe forms of nourishment for publishers and better habits for advertisers and their agencies. Those include Customer CommonsMe2B AllianceMyData Global and ProjectVRM.

______________

*The bill (AB 375), begins,

The California Constitution grants a right of privacy. Existing law provides for the confidentiality of personal information in various contexts and requires a business or person that suffers a breach of security of computerized data that includes personal information, as defined, to disclose that breach, as specified.

This bill would enact the California Consumer Privacy Act of 2018. Beginning January 1, 2020, the bill would grant a consumer a right to request a business to disclose the categories and specific pieces of personal information that it collects about the consumer, the categories of sources from which that information is collected, the business purposes for collecting or selling the information, and the categories of 3rd parties with which the information is shared. The bill would require a business to make disclosures about the information and the purposes for which it is used. The bill would grant a consumer the right to request deletion of personal information and would require the business to delete upon receipt of a verified request, as specified. The bill would grant a consumer a right to request that a business that sells the consumer’s personal information, or discloses it for a business purpose, disclose the categories of information that it collects and categories of information and the identity of 3rd parties to which the information was sold or disclosed…

Don Marti has a draft letter one might submit to the brokers and advertisers who use all that personal data. (He also tweets a caution here.)

†This will be the subject of my next post.

A Route of Evanescence,
With a revolving Wheel –
A Resonance of Emerald
A Rush of Cochineal –
And every Blossom on the Bush
Adjusts it’s tumbled Head –
The Mail from Tunis – probably,
An easy Morning’s Ride –

—Emily Dickinson
(via The Poetry Foundation)

While that poem is apparently about a hummingbird, it’s the one that comes first to my mind when I contemplate the form of evanescence that’s rooted in the nature of the Internet, where all of us are here right now, as I’m writing and you’re reading this.

Because, let’s face it: the Internet is no more about anything “on” it than air is about noise, speech or anything at all. Like air, sunlight, gravity and other useful graces of nature, the Internet is good for whatever can be done with it.

Same with the Web. While the Web was born as a way to share documents at a distance (via the Internet), it was never a library, even though we borrowed the language of real estate and publishing (domains and sites with pages one could author, edit, publish, syndicate, visit and browse) to describe it. While the metaphorical framing in all those words suggests durability and permanence, they belie the inherently evanescent nature of all we call content.

Think about the words memorystorageupload, and download. All suggest that content in digital form has substance at least resembling the physical kind. But it doesn’t. It’s a representation, in a pattern of ones and zeros, recorded on a medium for as long the responsible party wishes to keep it there, or the medium survives. All those states are volatile, and none guarantee that those ones and zeroes will last.

I’ve been producing digital content for the Web since the early 90s, and for much of that time I was lulled into thinking of the digital tech as something at least possibly permanent. But then my son Allen pointed out a distinction between the static Web of purposefully durable content and what he called the live Web. That was in 2003, when blogs were just beginning to become a thing. Since then the live Web has become the main Web, and people have come to see content as writing or projections on a World Wide Whiteboard. Tweets, shares, shots and posts are mostly of momentary value. Snapchat succeeded as a whiteboard where people could share “moments” that erased themselves after one view. (It does much more now, but evanescence remains its root.)

But, being both (relatively) old and (seriously) old-school about saving stuff that matters, I’ve been especially concerned with how we can archive, curate and preserve as much as possible of what’s produced for the digital world.

Last week, for example, I was involved in the effort to return Linux Journal to the Web’s shelves. (The magazine and site, which lived from April 1994 to August 2019, was briefly down, and with it all my own writing there, going back to 1996. That corpus is about a third of my writing in the published world.) Earlier, when it looked like Flickr might go down, I worried aloud about what would become of my many-dozen-thousand photos there. SmugMug saved it (Yay!); but there is no guarantee that any Website will persist forever, in any form. In fact, the way to bet is on the mortality of everything there. (Perspective: earlier today, over at doc.blog, I posted a brief think piece about the mortality of our planet, and the youth of the Universe.)

But the evanescent nature of digital memory shouldn’t stop us from thinking about how to take better care of what of the Net and the Web we wish to see remembered for the world. This is why it’s good to be in conversation on the topic with Brewster Kahle (of archive.org), Dave Winer and other like-minded folk. I welcome your thoughts as well.

black hole

Last night I watched The Great Hack a second time. It’s a fine documentary, maybe even a classic. (A classic in literature, I learned on this Radio Open Source podcast, is a work that “can only be re-read.” If that’s so, then perhaps a classic movie is one that can only be re-watched.*)

The movie’s message could hardly be more loud and clear: vast amounts of private information about each of us is gathered constantly in the digital world, and is being weaponized so our minds and lives can be hacked by others for commercial or political gain. Or both. The movie’s star, Professor David Carroll of the New School (@profcarroll), has been delivering that message for many years, as have many others, including myself.

But to what effect?

Sure, we have policy moves such as the GDPR, the main achievement of which (so far) has been to cause every website to put confusing and (in most cases) insincere cookie notices on their index pages, meant (again, in most cases) to coerce “consent” (which really isn’t) to exactly the unwanted tracking the regulation was meant to stop.

Those don’t count.

Ennui does. Apathy does.

On seeing The Great Hack that second time, I had exactly the same feeling my wife had on seeing it for her first: that the very act of explaining the problem also trivialized it. In other words, the movie worsened the very problem it solved. And it isn’t alone at this, because so has everything everybody has said, written or reported about it. Or so it sometimes seems. At least to me.

Okay, so: if I’m right about that, why might it be?

One reason is that there’s no story. See, every story requires three elements: character (or characters), problem (or problems), and movement toward resolution. (Find a more complete explanation here.) In this case, the third element—movement toward resolution—is absent. Worse, there’s almost no hope. “The Great Hack” concludes with a depressing summary that tends to leave one feeling deeply screwed, especially since the only victories in the movie are over the late Cambridge Analytica; and those victories were mostly within policy circles we know will either do nothing or give us new laws that protect yesterday from last Thursday… and then last another hundred years.

The bigger reason is that we are now in a media environment summarized by Marshall McLuhan in his book The Medium is the Massage: “every new medium works us over completely.” Our new medium is the Internet, which is a non-place absent of distance and gravity. The only institutions holding up there are ones clearly anchored in the physical world. Health care and law enforcement, for example. Others dealing in non-material goods, such as information and ideas, aren’t doing as well.

Journalism, for example. Worse, on the Internet it’s easy for everyone to traffic in thoughts and opinions, as well as in solid information. So now the world of thoughts and ideas, which preponderate on social media such as Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, are vast floods of everything from everybody. In the midst of all that, the news cycle, which used to be daily, now lasts about as long as a fart. Calling it all too much is a near-absolute understatement.

But David Carroll is right. Darkness is falling. I just wish all the light we keep trying to shed would do a better job of helping us all see that.

_________

*For those who buy that notion, I commend The Rewatchables, a great podcast from The Ringer.


In 1995, shortly after she first encountered e-commerce, my wife assigned a cool project to the world by asking a simple question: Why can’t I take my shopping cart from site to site?

The operative word in that question is the first person possessive pronoun: my.

Look up personal online shopping cart and you’ll get nearly a billion results, but none are for a shopping cart of your own. They’re all for shopping carts in commercial websites. In other words, those carts are for sellers, not buyers. They may say “my shopping cart” (a search for that one yields 3.1 billion results), but what they mean is their shopping cart. They say “my” in the same coo-ing way an adult might talk to a baby. (Oh, is my diaper full?)

Shopping online has been stuck in this uncool place because it got modeled on client-server, which should have been called “slave-master” when it got named a few decades ago. Eight years ago here (in our September 2011 issue) I called client-server “calf-cow,” and illustrated it with this photo (which a reader correctly said was shot in France, because it was clear to him that these are French cows):

calf-cow

It began,

As entities on the Web, we have devolved. Client-server has become calf-cow. The client—that’s you—is the calf, and the Web site is the cow. What you get from the cow is milk and cookies. The milk is what you go to the site for. The cookies are what the site gives to you, mostly for its own business purposes, chief among which is tracking you like an animal. There are perhaps a billion or more server-cows now, each with its own “brand” (as marketers and cattle owners like to say).

This is not what the Net’s founders had in mind. Nor was it what Tim Berners-Lee meant for his World Wide Web of hypertext documents to become. But it’s what we’ve got, and it’s getting worse.

In February 2011, Eben Moglen gave a landmark speech to the Internet Society titled “Freedom in the Cloud”, in which he unpacked the problem. In the beginning, he said, the Internet was designed as “a network of peers without any intrinsic need for hierarchical or structural control, and assuming that every switch in the Net is an independent, free-standing entity whose volition is equivalent to the volition of the human beings who want to control it”. Alas, “it never worked out that way”. Specifically:

If you were an ordinary human, it was hard to perceive that the underlying architecture of the Net was meant to be peerage because the OS software with which you interacted very strongly instantiated the idea of the server and client architecture.

In fact, of course, if you think about it, it was even worse than that. The thing called “Windows” was a degenerate version of a thing called “X Windows”. It, too, thought about the world in a server-client architecture, but what we would now think of as backwards. The server was the thing at the human being’s end. That was the basic X Windows conception of the world. It served communications with human beings at the end points of the Net to processes located at arbitrary places near the center in the middle, or at the edge of the Net…

No need to put your X Windows hat back on. Think instead about how you would outfit your own shopping cart: one you might take from store to store.

For this it helps to think about how you already outfit your car, SUV or truck: a vehicle that is unambiguously yours, even if you only lease it. (By yours I mean you operate it, as an extension of you. When you drive it, you wear it like a carapace. In your mind, those are my wheels, my engine, my fenders.)

Since you’ll be driving this thing in the online world, there’s a lot more you can do with it than the one obvious thing, which is to keep a list of all the things you’ve put in shopping carts at multiple websites. Instead start with a wish list that might include everything you ought to be getting from e-commerce, but can’t because e-commerce remains stuck in the calf-cow model, so the whole thing is about cows getting scale across many calves. Your personal shopping cart should be a way for you to get scale across all of e-commerce. Depending on how much you want to kit up your cart, you should be able to—

  1. Keep up with prices for things you want that have changed, across multiple sites
  2. Intentcast to multiple stores your intention to buy something, and say under what conditions you’d be willing to buy it
  3. Subscribe and unsubscribe from mailings in one standard way that’s yours
  4. Keep up with “loyalty” programs at multiple sites, including coupons and discounts you might be interested in (while rejecting the vast majority of those that are uninteresting, now or forever)
  5. Keep records of what you’ve bought from particular retailers in the past, plus where and when you bought those things, including warranty information
  6. Let stores know what your privacy policies are, plus your terms and conditions for dealing with them, including rules for how your personal data might be used
  7. Have a simple and standard way to keep in touch with the makers and sellers of what you own—one that works for you and for those others, in both directions
  8. Have a way to change your contact information for any or all of them, in one move
  9. Mask or reveal what you wish to reveal about yourself and your identity, with anonymity as the default
  10. Pay in the fiat or crypto currency of your choice
  11. Use your own damn wallet, rather than using a Google, Apple or a Whatever wallet
  12. Everything else on the ProjectVRM punch list, where you’ll find links to work on many of the ideas above.

Yes, I know. All those things fly in the face of Business As Usual. They’ll be fought by incumbents, require standards or APIs that don’t yet exist, and so on. But so what. All those things also can be done technically. And, as Marc Andreessen told me (right here in Linux Journal, way back in 1998), “all the significant trends start with technologists.” So start one.

You also don’t need to start with a shopping cart. Anything on that list can stand alone or be clustered in some other… well, pick your metaphor: dashboard, cockpit, console, whatever. It might also help to know there is already development work in nearly all of those cases, and an abundance of other opportunities to revolutionize approaches to business online that have been stuck for a long time. To explain how long, here is the entire text of a one-slide presentation Phil Windley gave a few years ago:

HISTORY OF E-COMMERCE

1995: Invention of the Cookie

The End

Now is the time to break out of the cookie jar where business has been stuck for an inexcusably long time.

It’s time to start working for customers, and making them more than just “users” or “consumers.” Think Me2B and not just B2C. Make customertech and not just salestech, adtech and martech. Give every customer leverage:

By doing that, you will turn the whole marketplace into a Marvel-like universe where all of us are enhanced.

For inspiration, think about what Linux did against every other operating system. Think about what the Internet did to every LAN, WAN, phone company and cable company in the world. Think about what the Web did to every publishing system.

Linux, the Net and the Web each had something radical in common: they extended the power of individual human beings before they utterly reformed every activity and enterprise that came to depend on them.

If you’re interested in any of those projects above, talk to me. Or just start working on it, and tell me about it so I can help the world know.

Go to the Alan Turing Institute. If it’s a first time for you, a popover will appear:

Among the many important things the Turing Institute is doing for us right now is highlighting with that notice exactly what’s wrong with the cookie system for remembering choices, and lack of them, for each of us using the Web.

As the notice points out, the site uses “necessary cookies,” “analytics cookies” (defaulted to On, in case you can’t tell from the design of that switch), and (below that) “social cookies.” Most importantly, it does not use cookies meant to track you for advertising purposes. They should brag on that one.

What these switches highlight is that the memory of your choices is theirs, not yours. The whole cookie system outsources your memory of cookie choices to the sites and services of the world. While the cookies themselves can be found somewhere deep in the innards of your computer, you have little or no knowledge of what they are or what they mean, and there are thousands of those in there already.

And yes, we do have browsers that protect us in various ways from unwelcome cookies, but they all do that differently, and none in standard ways that give us clear controls over how we deal with sites and how sites deal with us.

One way to start thinking about this is as a need for cookies go the other way:

I wrote about that last year at Linux Journal in a post by that title. A nice hack called Global Consent Manager does that.

Another way is to think (and work toward getting the sites and services of the world to agree to our terms, and to have standard ways of recording that, on our side rather than theirs. Work on that is proceeding at Customer Commons, the IEEE, various Kantara initiatives and the Me2B Alliance.

Then we will need a dashboard, a cockpit (or the metaphor of your choice) through which we can see and control what’s going on as we move about the Web. This will give us personal scale that we should have had on Day One (specifically, in 1995, when graphical browsers took off). This too should be standardized.

There can be no solution that starts on the sites’ side. None. That’s a fail that in effect gives us a different browser for every site we visit. We need solutions of our own. Personal ones. Global ones. Ones with personal scale. It’s the only way.

The answer is, we don’t know. Also, we may never know, because—

  • It’s too hard to measure (especially if you’re talking about the entire Net)
  • Too so much of the usage is in mobile devices that vary enormously
  • The browser makers are approaching ad blocking and tracking protection in different and new ways that change frequently, and the same goes for ad-blocking and tracking-protecting extensions and add-ons. One of them (Adblock Plus) is actually in the advertising business (which Wikipedia politely calls ad filtering)
  • Some of the most easily sourced measures are surveys, yet what people say and what they do are very different things
  • Some of the most widely cited findings are from sources with conflicted interests (for example, selling anti-ad-blocking services), or which aggregate multiple sources that aren’t revealed when cited
  • Actors good and bad in the ecosystem that ad blocking addresses also contribute to the fudge

But let’s explore a bit anyway, working with what we’ve got, flawed though much of it may be. If you’re a tl;dr kind of reader, jump down to the conclusions at the end.

Part 1: ClarityRay and Pagefair

Between 2012 and 2017, the most widely cited ad blocking reports were by ClarityRay and PageFair, in that order. There are no links to ClarityRay’s 2012 report, which I cited here in 2013. PageFair links to their 2015, 2016 (mobile) and 2017 reports are still live. The company also said last November that it was at work on another report. This was after PageFair was acquired by Blockthrough (“the leading adblock recovery program”). A PageFair blog post explains it.

I placed a lot of trust in PageFair’s work, mostly because I respected Dr. Johnny Ryan (@JohnnyRyan), who left PageFair for Brave in 2018. I also like what I know about Matthew Cortland, who was also at PageFair, and may still be. Far as I know, he hasn’t written anything about ad blocking research (but maybe I’ve missed it) since 2017.

Here are the main findings from PageFair’s 2017 report:

  • 615 million devices now use adblock
  • 11% of the global internet population is blocking ads on the web

Part 2: GlobalWebIndex

In January 2016, GlobalWebIndex said “37% of mobile users … say they’ve blocked ads on their mobile within the last month.” I put that together with Statista’s 2017 claim that there were then more than 4.6 billion mobile phone users in the world, which suggested that 1.7 billion people were blocking ads by that time.

Now GlobalWebIndex‘s Global Ad-Blocking Behavior report says 47% of us are blocking ads now. It also says, “As a younger and more engaged audience, ad-blockers also are much more likely to be paying subscribers and consumers. Ad-free premium services are especially attractive.” Which is pretty close to Don Marti‘s long-standing claim that readers who protect their privacy are more valuable than readers who don’t.

To get a total ad blocking population from that 47%, one possible source to cite is Internet World Stats:

Note that Internet World Stats appears to be a product of the Miniwatts Marketing Group, whose website is currently a blank WordPress placeholder. But, to be modest about it, their number is lower than Statista’s from 2016: “In 2019 the number of mobile phone users is forecast to reach 4.68 billion.” So let’s run with the lower one, at least for now.

Okay, so if 47% of us are using ad blockers, and Internet World Stats says there were 4,312,982,270 Internet users by the end of last year (that’s mighty precise!), the combined numbers suggest that more than 2,027,101,667 people are now blocking ads worldwide. So, we might generalize, more than two billion people are blocking ads today. Hence the headline above.

Perspective: back in 2015, we were already calling ad blocking The biggest boycott in human history. And that was when the number was just “approaching 200 million.”

More interesting to me is GlobalWebIndex’s breakouts of listed reasons why the people surveyed blocked ads. Three in particular stand out:

  • Ads contain viruses or bugs, 38%
  • Ads might compromise my online privacy, 26%
  • Stop ads being personalized, 22%

The problem here, as I said in the list up top, is that these are measured behaviors. They are sympathies. But they’re still significant, because sympathies sell. That means there are markets here. Opportunities to align incentives.

Part 3: Ad Fraud Researcher

I rely a great deal on Dr. Augustine Fou (@acfou), aka Independent Ad Fraud Researcher, to think and work more deeply and knowingly than I’ve done so far here (or may ever do).

Looking at Part 2 above (in an earlier version of this post), he tweeted, “I dispute these findings. ASKING people if they used an ad blocker in the past month is COMPLETELY inaccurate and inconsistent with people who ACTUALLY USE ad blockers regularly.” Also, “Source: GlobalWebIndex Q3 2018 Base: 93,803 internet users aged 16-64, among which were 42,078 respondents who have used an ad-blocker in the past month”. Then, “Are you going to take numbers extrapolated from 42,078 respondents and extrapolate that to the entire world? that would NOT be OK.” And, “Desktop ad blocking in the U.S. measured directly on sites which humans visit is in the 8 – 19% range. Bots must also be scrubbed because bots do not block ads and will skew ad blocking rates lower, if not removed.”

On that last tweet he points to his own research, published this month.There is lots of data in there, all of it interesting and unbiased. Then he adds, “your point about this being the ‘biggest boycott in human history’ is still valid. But the numbers from that ad blocking study should not be used.”

Part 4: Comscore

Among the many helpful tweets in response to the first draft of this post was this one by Zubair Shafiq (@zubair_shafiq), Assistant Professor of Computer Science at the University of Iowa, where he researches computer networks, security, and privacy. His tweet points to Ad Blockers: Global Prevalence and Impact, by Matthew Malloy, Mark McNamara, Aaron Cahn and Paul Barford, from 2016. Here is one chart among many in the report:

The jive in the Geo row is explained at that link. A degree in statistics will help.

Part 5: Statista

Statista seems serious, but Ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020 is behind a paywall. Still, they do expose this hunk of text: “The statistic presents data on ad blocking user penetration rate in the United States from 2014 to 2020. It was found that 25.2 percent of U.S. internet users blocked ads on their connected devices in 2018. This figure is projected to grow to 27.5 percent in 2020.”

Provisional Conclusions

  1. The number is huge, but we don’t know how huge.
  2. Express doubt about any one large conclusion. Augustine Fou cautions me (and all of us) to look at where the data comes from, why it’s used, and how. In the case of Statista, for example, the data is aggregated from other sources. They don’t do the research themselves. It’s also almost too easy to copy and paste (as I’ve done here) images that might themselves be misleading. The landmark book on misleading statistics—no less relevant today than when it was written in 1954 (and perhaps more relevant than ever)—is How to Lie With Statistics.
  3. Everything is changing. For example, browsers are starting to obsolesce the roles played by ad blocking and tracking protection extensions and add-ons. Brave is the early leader, IMHO. Safari, Firefox and even Chrome are all making moves in this direction. Also check out Ghostery’s Cliqz. For some perspective on how long this is taking, take a look at what I was calling for way back in 2015.
  4. The market is sending a massive message.  That message is that advertising online has come to have massively negative value. Ad blocking and tracking protection are legitimate and eloquent messages from demand to supply. By fighting that message, marketing is crapping on most obvious and gigantic clue it has ever seen. And the supply side of the market isn’t just marketers selling stuff. It’s developers who need to start working for the hundreds of millions of customers who have proven their value by using these tools.

The Spinner* (with the asterisk) is “a service that enables you to subconsciously influence a specific person, by controlling the content on the websites he or she usually visits.” Meaning you can hire The Spinner* to hack another person.

It works like this:

  1. You pay The Spinner* $29. For example, to urge a friend to stop smoking. (That’s the most positive and innocent example the company gives.)
  2. The Spinner* provides you with an ordinary link you then text to your friend. When that friend clicks on the link, they get a tracking cookie that works as a bulls-eye for The Spinner* to hit with 10 different articles written specifically to influence that friend. He or she “will be strategically bombarded with articles and media tailored to him or her.” Specifically, 180 of these things. Some go in social networks (notably Facebook) while most go into “content discovery platforms” such as Outbrain and Revcontent (best known for those clickbait collections you see appended to publishers’ websites).

The Spinner* is also a hack on journalism, designed like a magic trick to misdirect moral outrage toward The Spinner’s obviously shitty business, and away from the shitty business called adtech, which not only makes The Spinner possible, but pays for most of online journalism as well.

The magician behind The Spinner* is “Elliot Shefler.” Look that name up and you’ll find hundreds of stories. Here are a top few, to which I’ve added some excerpts and notes:

  • For $29, This Man Will Help Manipulate Your Loved Ones With Targeted Facebook And Browser Links, by Parmy Olson @parmy in Forbes. Excerpt: He does say that much of his career has been in online ads and online gambling. At its essence, The Spinner’s software lets people conduct a targeted phishing attack, a common approach by spammers who want to secretly grab your financial details or passwords. Only in this case, the “attacker” is someone you know. Shefler says his algorithms were developed by an agency with links to the Israeli military.
  • For $29, This Company Swears It Will ‘Brainwash’ Someone on Facebook, by Kevin Poulson (@kpoulson) in The Daily Beast. A subhead adds, A shadowy startup claims it can target an individual Facebook user to bend him or her to a client’s will. Experts are… not entirely convinced.
  • Facebook is helping husbands ‘brainwash’ their wives with targeted ads, by Simon Chandler (@_simonchandler_) in The Daily Dot. Excerpt: Most critics assume that Facebook’s misadventures relate only to its posting of ads paid for by corporations and agencies, organizations that aim to puppeteer the “average” individual. It turns out, however, that the social network also now lets this same average individual place ads that aim to manipulate other such individuals, all thanks to the mediation of a relatively new and little-known company…
  • Brainwashing your wife to want sex? Here is adtech at its worst., by Samuel Scott (@samueljscott) in The Drum. Alas, the piece is behind a registration wall that I can’t climb without fucking myself (or so I fear, since the terms and privacy policy total 32 pages and 10,688 words I’m not going to read), so I can’t quote from it.
  • Creepy company hopes ‘Inception’ method will get your wife in the mood, by Saqib Shah (@eightiethmnt) in The Sun, via The New York Post. Excerpt: “It’s unethical in many ways,” admitted Shefler, adding “But it’s the business model of all media. If you’re against it, you’re against all media.” He picked out Nike as an example, explaining that if you visit the brand’s website it serves you a cookie, which then tailors the browsing experience to you every time you come back. A shopping website would also use cookies to remember the items you’re storing in a virtual basket before checkout. And a social network might use cookies to track the links you click and then use that information to show you more relevant or interesting links in the future…The Spinner started life in January of this year. Shefler claims the company is owned by a larger, London-based “agency” that provides it with “big data” and “AI” tools.
  • Adtech-for-sex biz tells blockchain consent app firm, ‘hold my beer’, by Rebecca Hill (@beckyhill) in The Register. The subhead says, Hey love, just click on this link… what do you mean, you’re seeing loads of creepy articles?
  • New Service Promises to Manipulate Your Wife Into Having Sex With You, by Fiona Tapp (@fionatappdotcom) in Rolling Stone. Excerpt: The Spinner team suggests that there isn’t any difference, in terms of morality, from a big company using these means to influence a consumer to book a flight or buy a pair of shoes and a husband doing the same to his wife. Exactly.
  • The Spinner And The Faustian Bargain Of Anonymized Data, by Lauren Arevalo-Downes (whose Twitter link by the piece goes to a 404) in A List Daily. On that site, the consent wall that creeps up from the bottom almost completely blanks out the actual piece, and I’m not going to “consent,” so no excertoing here either.
  • Can you brainwash one specific person with targeted Facebook ads? in TripleJ Hack, by ABC.net.au. Excerpt: Whether or not the Spinner has very many users, whether or not someone is going to stop drinking or propose marriage simply because they saw a sponsored post in their feed, it seems feasible that someone can try to target and brainwash a single person through Facebook.
  • More sex, no smoking – even a pet dog – service promises to make you a master of manipulation, by Chris Keall (@ChrisKeall) in The New Zealand Herald. Excerpt: On one level, The Spinner is a jape, rolled out as a colour story by various publications. But on another level it’s a lot more sinister: apparently yet another example of Facebook’s platform being abused to invade privacy and manipulate thought.
  • The Cambridge Analytica of Sex: Online service to manipulate your wife to have sex with you, by Ishani Ghose in meaww. Excerpt: The articles are all real but the headlines and the descriptions have been changed by the Spinner team. The team manipulating the headlines of these articles include a group of psychologists from an unnamed university. As the prepaid ads run, the partner will see headlines such as “3 Reasons Why YOU Should Initiate Sex With Your Husband” or “10 Marriage Tips Every Woman Needs to Hear”.

Is Spinner for real?

“Elliot Shefler” is human for sure. But his footprint online is all PR. He’s not on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. The word “Press” (as in coverage) at the top of the Spinner website is just a link to a Google search for Elliot Shefler, not to curated list such as a real PR person or agency might compile.

Fortunately, a real PR person, Rich Leigh (@RichLeighPR) did some serious digging (you know, like a real reporter) and presented his findings in his blog, PR Examples, in a post titled Frustrated husbands can ‘use micro-targeted native ads to influence their wives to initiate sex’ – surely a PR stunt? Please, a PR stunt? It ran last July 10th, the day after Rich saw this tweet by Maya Kosoff (@mekosoff):

—and this one:

The links to (and in) those tweets no longer work, but the YouTube video behind one of the links is still up. The Spinner itself produced the video, which is tricked to look like a real news story. (Rich does some nice detective work, figuring that out.) The image above is a montage I put together from screenshots of the video.

Here’s some more of what Rich found out:

  • Elliot – not his real name, incidentally, his real name is Halib, a Turkish name (he told me) – lives, or told me he lives, in Germany

  • When I asked him directly, he assured me that it was ‘real’, and when I asked him why it didn’t work when I tried to pay them money, told me that it would be a technical issue that would take around half an hour to fix, likely as a result of ‘high traffic. I said I’d try again later. I did – keep reading

  • It is emphatically ‘not’ PR or marketing for anything

  • He told me that he has 5-6,000 paying users – that’s $145,000 – $174,000, if he’s telling the truth

  • Halib said that Google Ads were so cheap as nobody was bidding on them for the terms he was going for, and they were picking up traffic for ‘one or two cents’

  • He banked on people hate-tweeting it. “I don’t mind what they feel, as long as they think something”, Halib said – which is scarily like something I’ve said in talks I’ve given about coming up with PR ideas that bang

  • The service ‘works’ by dropping a cookie, which enables it to track the person you’re trying to influence in order to serve specific content. I know we had that from the site, but it’s worth reiterating

Long post short, Rich says Habib and/or Elliot is real, and so is The Spinner.

But what matters isn’t whether or not The Spinner is real. It’s that The Spinner misdirects reporters’ attention away from what adtech is and does, which is spy on people for the purpose of aiming stuff at them. And that adtech isn’t just what funds all of Facebook and much of Google (both giant and obvious targets of journalistic scrutiny), but what funds nearly all of publishing online, including most reporters’ salaries.

So let’s look deeper, starting here: There is no moral difference between planting an unseen tracking beacon on a person’s digital self and doing the same on a person’s physical self.

The operational difference is that in the online world it’s a helluva lot easier to misdirect people into thinking they’re not being spied on. Also a helluva lot easier for spies and intermediaries (such as publishers) to plausibly deny that spying is what they’re doing. And to excuse it, saying for example “It’s what pays for the Free Internet!” Which is bullshit, because the Internet, including the commercial Web, got along fine for many years before adtech turned the whole thing into Mos Eisley. And it will get along fine without adtech after we kill it, or it dies of its own corruption.

Meanwhile the misdirection continues, and it’s away from a third rail that honest and brave journalists† need to grab: that adtech is also what feeds most of them.

______________

† I’m being honest here, but not brave. Because I’m safe. I don’t work for a publication that’s paid by adtech. At Linux Journal, we’re doing the opposite, by being the first publication ready to accept terms that our readers proffer, starting with Customer CommonsP2B1(beta), which says “Just show me ads not based on tracking me.”

In a press release, Amazon explained why it backed out of its plan to open a new headquarters in New York City:

For Amazon, the commitment to build a new headquarters requires positive, collaborative relationships with state and local elected officials who will be supportive over the long-term. While polls show that 70% of New Yorkers support our plans and investment, a number of state and local politicians have made it clear that they oppose our presence and will not work with us to build the type of relationships that are required to go forward with the project we and many others envisioned in Long Island City.

So, even if the economics were good, the politics were bad.

The hmm for me is why not New Jersey? Given the enormous economic and political overhead of operating in New York, I’m wondering why Amazon didn’t consider New Jersey first. Or if it’s thinking about it now.

New Jersey is cheaper and (so I gather) friendlier, at least tax-wise. It also has the country’s largest port (one that used to be in New York, bristling Manhattan’s shoreline with piers and wharves, making look like a giant paramecium) and is a massive warehousing and freight forwarding hub. In fact Amazon already has a bunch of facilities there (perhaps including its own little port on Arthur Kill). I believe there are also many more places to build on the New Jersey side. (The photo above, shot on approach to Newark Airport, looks at New York across some of those build-able areas.)

And maybe that’s the plan anyway, without the fanfare.

As it happens, I’m in the midst of reading Robert Caro‘s The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. (Which is massive. There’s a nice summary in The Guardian here.) This helps me appreciate the power of urban planning, and how thoughtful and steel-boned opposition to some of it can be fully useful. One example of that is Jane Jacobs’ thwarting of Moses’ plan to run a freeway through Greeenwich Village. He had earlier done the same through The Bronx, with the Cross Bronx Expressway. While that road today is an essential stretch of the northeast transport corridor, at the time it was fully destructive to urban life in that part of the city—and in many ways still is.

So I try to see both sides of an issue such as this. What’s constructive and what’s destructive in urban planning are always hard to pull apart.

For an example close to home, I often wonder if it’s good that Fort Lee is now almost nothing but high-rises? This is the town my grandfather helped build (he was the head carpenter for D.W. Griffith when Fort Lee was the first Hollywood), where my father grew up climbing the Palisades for fun, and where he later put his skills to work as cable rigger, helping build the George Washington Bridge. The Victorian house Grandpa built for his family on Hoyt Avenue, and where my family lived when I was born, stood about as close to a giant new glass box called The Modern as I am from the kitchen in the apartment I’m writing this, a few blocks away from The Bridge on the other side of the Hudson. It’s paved now, by a road called Bruce Reynolds Boulevard. Remember Bridgegate? That happened right where our family home stood, in a pleasant neighborhood of which nothing remains.

Was the disappearance of that ‘hood a bad thing? Not by now, long after the neighborhood was erased and nearly everyone who lived has died or has long since moved on. Thousands more live there now than ever did when it was a grid of nice homes on quiet, tree-lined streets.

All urban developments are omelettes made of broken eggs. If you’re an egg, you’ve got reason to complain. If you’re a cook, you’d better make a damn fine omelette.

This is a game for our time. I play it on New York and Boston subways, but you can play it anywhere everybody in a crowd is staring at their personal rectangle.

I call it Rectangle Bingo.

Here’s how you play. At the moment when everyone is staring down at their personal rectangle, you shoot a pano of the whole scene. Nobody will see you because they’re not present: they’re absorbed in rectangular worlds outside their present space/time.

Then you post your pano somewhere search engines will find it, and hashtag it #RectangularBingo.

Then, together, we’ll think up some way to recognize winners.

Game?

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